Drew French and Connie Brandin

Decade Paper: 1710-1719

Professor Westblade

14 February 2011



In 1716, a thirteen-year-old Jonathan Edwards left home for the first time. He had already shown that he was smart boy by obtaining proficiency in Greek and Latin by this early age. Yet he had a new collegiate challenge in front of him which opened him up to a new set of possible influences. He pledged to learn what Yale, a new college, would teach him. Yale, as with any institution, was shaped by the culture, politics, and ideas of the time.  What then were the current events that shaped the thinking at Yale, and so the thinking of the young Edwards? To understand Edwards, we must first seek to understand the political, economic, philosophical, and religious currents of the time. Edwards had to decide to resist or accept these aspects of his culture. In order to understand his application of the gospel we must first understand his culture. So this brief study hopes to reveal these influential political situations, economic realities, secular ideas, and religious responses that shaped his education in the 1710s.

            The colonial time, specifically from 1713 to the revolution, was marked by expansion (Morison 92). The expansion happened in territory, population, and economic power. These advancements hinged on the unprecedented availability of good land. The land’s affordability meant that nearly anyone could get a farm of their own. Then someone could take his livelihood into his own hands; his wealth could expand with hard work. The desire for farms let the settlements extend north and south of New England along the coast. New settlements emerged such as Litchfield in 1719, Sheffield in 1725, and Williamstown in 1750 (Johnson 86). Beginning in the 1720s the expansion continued to the south and inland into what is now North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The dimension of settled land was growing rapidly and there seemed to be no end to the available land. This opportunity must have caused an enthusiastic spirit in the Colonialists.

            This territory expansion led to a huge population boom. In 1713 there were about 360,000 colonists, by 1760 there were 1,600,000 (Carruth, 92). There are two reasons to contribute to this growth. Firstly, with plenty of means available on the farm, families had many children. Secondly, the lure of cheap land drew immigrants from all over Europe. The opportunity available in the New World tempted many to join its quickly growing ranks.

            The resources of the continent supported all of its new inhabitants. A major commodity in the time was wood. England’s desire to rule the sea necessitated a huge fleet. There was a seemingly endless supply of trees on the continent and the colonists were quick to make good uses of their resources. Americans soon became better shipbuilders than their counterparts in England. Not only were the American ships better, but they were 20-50% cheaper. In addition to selling ships, their availability allowed the colonists to build a large commercial shipping fleet. They would sell the low-quality small fish to the French West Indies, the high-quality small fish to England, and the large fish to New England (Johnson 92). As cities grew, other businesses were formed to meet the demand. For instance, bookstores became more common. They first reached the continent in 1698 and by 1711 there were 30 stores in Boston alone (Carruth, 45). While this economic growth was good for the expanding colonies, it contributed to a tension between America and England. 

            The speed of this development prevented the authorities to maintain control over the economy. Historian Paul Johnson says that “so many things were happening in America, at such a speed, that the authorities simply lost touch” (Johnson 91). By the time information would reach the authorities, it would often be outdated. Or worse, the governors would not report the whole truth of what was happening in the colony. The original purpose of colonies was to make money for the home country. America could have been a great resource for England, but England was unable to harness the growth of America. With such a slow communication system, the Americans became tired of waiting on the officials to give certifications for building businesses and buying land. Sometimes they would just sidestep official channels altogether. Many of the expansion and industrial growth was illegal. England enforced some restrictions on things such as wool, hats, and steel furnaces. These restrictions, however, were sometimes enforced and sometimes ignored (Johnson 89). They failed to suppress or harness the economic growth of America. So while America grew rich, England only benefitted moderately from her American colonies.

            In 1717, England began to send criminals to America as bonded labor. While this appeared to help America, it quickly proved unhelpful. The convicts were lazy, complaining, and feared by the colonists. Horror stories of them murdering the children of their bosses hurt their reputation. This practice faded from prominence in the 1760s, but not before about 10,000 criminals came to America. Overall it did not help the American-English relations; William Byrd II wrote to an English friend: “I wish you would be so kind as to hang all your felons at home” (Johnson 96). This practice did not help the strained relationship.

            The relationship between the colonies and England was beginning to be strained during the 1710s. The tension seems inevitable in hindsight. Americans did not want to deal with the inefficiency of having its governing body an ocean away. In attempt to avoid this difficulty they avoided reporting their growth to England at all and so left the government out of it. This hands-off approach worked for the colonists until they needed something to be done from the government. The biggest thing they expected was military support against the Indians and possible slave revolt. Clashes with the Indians began because of the colonists’ use of the land for their cattle. The Indians were obviously angered to be thusly displaced. In April of 1715 the Yamassee Indians killed hundreds of settlers in Carolina. The colonists responded the next year by defeating the Yamassee by allaying with the Cherokee. Incidents like these made the colonists discontent with the lack of protection they were getting from the thrown. But England was hardly motivated to commit her troops to protect the expansion of settlers. The tension between England and America hinged on the expectations of what a colony was supposed to be for her mother country.

            Violence also erupted in New York City a group of African American slaves revolted. Slavery in the city context lent itself to such an outbreak of violence for two main reasons. Firstly, the slaves all lived in the same section of the city giving them ample opportunity to plan a revolt. Secondly, they often worked alongside free men. This gave them added motivation to change their situation. In April of 1712 twenty three blacks set fire to a building in the middle of the city. As the fire spread, they attacked those who tried to quell it. They killed at least nine whites before they were overcome by the militias from New York and Westchester. The event prompted the whites in New York to make much stricter slavery laws (pbs.org). In response to the revolt, the colonies felt the need to have a strong government to protect them.

            While the feeling of the 1710s was one of excitement, expansion, and potential; it also held trepidation about the struggle against the Indians and the weakening relationship with England. The tension between colony and country did not seem to have an immediate solution, so it was largely avoided by accepting little governmental control (on the positive side) and help (on the negative side). The excitement and the trepidation of the political situation may have contributed to the religious state of the colonies.

            The colonist stood on a puritan tradition that had been practiced for a few generations. But a couple of factors challenged this tradition around the 1710s. The immigration from all over Europe brought with it different denominations. In addition to this, the academic world was beginning to formulate what would become deism. The dissemination of deistic thought into the Puritan America was slower than Europe (Singer 26). The puritan tradition dampened the influence of deistic thought in America. By the 1710s, the puritan society had existed about three generations. So the intriguing deistic ideas prevalent in Europe had a cultural stigma in America which stunted their influence. Many colonial thinkers were forced to confine their deistic musings beliefs to their private diaries and letters.

            Deism and Calvinism held three similar elements. Firstly, they both held the orthodox view that God created and sustains the world. Secondly, this God gave mankind the ability to reason. Thirdly, men must, in response to the reality of God, live morally. Deism, however, gradually turns away from divine revelation towards a more natural theology. It places a greater emphasis on human reason rather than divine reason. God chooses to work through reason and natural laws. This means that it is better to know God through natural reason than divine revelation.  As a result, natural theologians were more willing to disregard Sola Scriptura and throw out the portions of Scripture when they felt it conflicted with reason.  Natural theologians were willing to acknowledge the need of divine revelation in the creation of the world. They rejected, however, other essential doctrines to the Puritans such as the Fall, total depravity, effectual calling (Singer 25). The teachings and followings of Jesus were still held in high regards, but only those as a moral teacher, not the actual Son of God. Natural theologians shied away from prophecy, miracles, or anything dependent on divine revelation.

            The two primary minds behind the formation of deism are John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. Locke died in 1706, making his influential writing just beginning to work its way into more and more people’s minds. Newton published in the 1710s and died in 1727. Their philosophies and discoveries gave deism the key components it needed to propel in colonial America. Because of the significant influence of deistic though prior in England, universities in America were ready to teach that deism.

John Locke is primarily known for his advancements in philosophy in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In this essay, he claims there are two sources of knowledge: reason and revelation. He was not as quick (as some deists were) to reject the divine aspects of the Christian religion and rely solely on humanity’s reasoning abilities (Morais 35).  He believed both rationality and miraculous events made the Christian faith plausible and divinely confirmed.   This confirmation, he explained, came both from the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and the miraculous events in Jesus’ time. Locke was additionally influenced by Latitudinarianism, which emerged in the 17th century and believed doctrine, liturgy practice, and ecclesiastical organization were of low importance.  Locke also offered a clear opinion for a freedom of thought and expression (Waring xii).  Deists would later harp on such an idea and claim it as necessary component to their argument because maximizing reason would be the ideal way to develop one’s independence and individuality.  

            Sir Isaac Newton, on the other hand, provides the substantial evidence deists use to point and prove natural theology. He is best known for his advancements in physics and calculus.  Newton’s popularity during the 1710 decade is evident through the pressure he received in 1713 to publish a second edition of Principia.  Newton’s concepts of physics and calculus showed that the world is measurable and ordered. The world seemed much like a system which God set in motion and left to its natural laws. Why would God mess with the wonderful laws of physics which he created? The world, then, is ruled by natural laws which will never fail. This extension of reason made Newton less orthodox than Locke. Newton believed in the Biblical account for creation and wrote numerous religious tracts at the end of his life. Despite this concern with religion, he denied the doctrine of the Trinity and believed worshiping Jesus as God was idolatry.  His ideas are at odds with measures of orthodoxy like the Nicene Creed.

One might think, however, that the Puritans had a strong reaction against such thought.  This is not necessarily the case due to natural theology’s development into three positions:

(1) Natural religion leads to, and is completed and purified by, revealed religion. (2) The content of both modes of religion is the same, but they differ in the manner and clarity of our knowing. (3). Natural religion contains all that is true in revealed religion; where the latter differs, the differences are either morally insignificant or superstitious.  (Waring ix-x)


It is important to note one of the most influential Puritan voices during this time period, Cotton Mather, believed aspects of Locke’s and Newton’s advancements coincided with his desire to return to the theological roots of Puritanism. Mather rose in popularity through his strong stance against Solomon Stoddard’s view of communion, his influence in the Salem Witch Trials, and his writing over 400 books and pamphlets. While Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister he was very connected to the scientific community. He believed strongly in the necessity of both divine revelation and reason. In 1712, he began writing frequently to the Royal Society. Eventually his publishing of Curiosa Americana gained him entrance into the society. He contributed observations in geology, Newtonian physics, medicine, and zoology. Additionally, he submitted a series of 13 scientific abstracts that were eventually incorporated in the Society’s 1714 publication of Philosophical Transactions (Beall 336).

With the rise of such important philosophical and scientific advancements, colleges and universities were anxious to incorporate such material into their curriculum. By 1718, Harvard’s enrollment had increased to 124 students under the first non-minister president, John Leverett. Leverett’s challenge came in trying to figure out how to preserve Harvard’s orthodox reputation in the wake of such advancement. With a higher enrollment number, students began to seek other vocations besides ministry, and as a result, “the college changed in subtle but far-reading ways” (Stout 131). Leverett decided to solve such a dilemma by encouraging students to read. The deistic ideas gained access into students minds. The books read at Harvard, and its smaller counterpart Yale, influenced the students in America with deistic thought. Students had to decide then how they would view scripture. They could see in a naturalistic frame. Or they could consider that naturalistic view a neutering of the sacred, inspired, true scripture. Regardless of that choice, students were faced with both Calvinism and deism. Even those who remained Puritan, had tested their belief against the intellectual attack of deism.

            Yale, 1916, the young Edwards enters his higher education. The religion of his parents was still with him, but was facing the larger influence of the university setting. His country was excited at its rapid expansion. The excitement of cheap, new land resonated in people’s hearts and minds. There was also, however, a storm brewing. A hint of tension was beginning to creep into the colonies’ relations with England. Religion was at a crossroads: would people accept the deistic influence or remain true to the Calvinism of their fathers? Edwards receives his education with these questions in the air. Out of this tension, he becomes in his later years one of the most clear Calvinistic thinkers. From the tension of his time he sought, and found, clarity. 




Works Cited

"Africans in America/Part 1/New York's Revolt of 1712." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 14 Feb. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p285.html>.

Beall, Otho T. "Cotton Mather's Early "Curiosa Americana" and the Boston Philosophical

Society of 1683." The William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 18 (1961): 360-72.

Carruth, Gorton. The Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates. New York: HarperCollins,


Harrell, David Edwin. Unto a Good Land: a History of the American People. Grand Rapids, MI:

William B. Eerdmans, 2005.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998.

Morais, Herbert M. Deism in Eighteenth Century America. New York: Columbia UP, 1934.

Singer, C. Gregg. A Theological Interpretation of American History. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian

and Reformed Publishing Company, 1964.

Stout, Harry S. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New

England. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Waring, E. Graham. Deism and Natural Religion: a Source Book. New York: Frederick Ungar,